Japan panic: the slit-mouthed woman
Stories of 口裂け女, the slit-mouthed woman, emerged from urban Japan in the late 1970s. At first they were particularly passed around between school children, then in the mass media. By the first half of 1979 Asahi Shinbun was highlighting kuchisake onna as a buzzword (hayari kotoba) of the year. In true, random Japanese style one of the others was “rabbit hutches”.
Occasionally Kuchisake onna was reported as a genuine physical threat, a criminal would-be kidnapper or murderer rather than a supernatural being. At times she was somehow both a real world abductor and a folkloric monster simultaneously. (See Hyaku-monogatari for the Edo origins of modern yōkai storytelling) Satoshi Kon’s extremely uneven but in places brilliant series 妄想代理人 Mōsō Dairinin [Paranoia Agent] is obviously heavily inspired by the mass hysteria over Kuchisake onna. A woman with long hair and a white mask– of the kind sold everywhere and very common in Japan to cover the mouth and nose when a person is ill, or against pollution– accosts you in the street and she asks something like “Watashi kirei?” (“Am I pretty?”) or “Atashi bijin ka?” (“Am I a beauty?”) If you agree that she is, she replies “Kore demo?” (“Even [like] this?”) as she tears off her mask to show that her mouth is slit open across the cheeks, from ear to ear. If you tell her she isn’t pretty, she becomes enraged and pursues you with a knife or scythe. The reason for her disfigurement and rage varies with the telling: sometimes it’s a plastic surgery disaster, sometimes a dreadful accident, sometimes self-inflicted. The same goes for the means of escaping her: repeating certain words, offering certain gifts, reaching a certain place before she catches you.
The monstrous feminine
Obviously there’s a lot going on here, semiotically and psychologically. Kuchisake onna is terrifying, at least in part, because most of us (and women in particular) know how profoundly unfair and unkind people can be towards any individual (and especially any woman) not considered attractive by whatever the current general standard is. Then there’s the corollary catch-22 situation in which attractive women, or women who are judged to be exerting too much effort to make themselves attractive as society dictates– women who are, in other words, complying with what society pressures them to do– are blamed, mocked and castigated for the arousal, the jealousy and occasionally even the crimes they supposedly “provoke” [sic]. Is Kuchisake onna evil because she’s ugly, or is she ugly because she’s evil?
Closely related to this, she’s also clearly an example of the “monstrous feminine” (cf. Barbara Creed), the vagina dentata, the devouring mother. In the context of Kuchisake onna and her mask, it doesn’t require the psychoanalytic skills of Freud to understand that it comes from male terror of another type of opening behind clean white cotton, from desire and disgust problematically jumbled together. And she’s showing it to you in the street against your will, a mythic female version of the all-too real male pervert– the paedophile, the flasher, the frotteur, the chikan. She’s a projection of the fundamental fear that lies behind at least some misogyny and homophobia from heterosexual men; the fear that women and gay men may be looking at and fantasising about dominating, belittling, exploiting or hurting straight men in the same demeaning, dehumanising way that these insecure men habitually think about and discuss doing those things to women.
So tell me… am I pretty?
(Source of Kuchisake onna information: Pandemonium and Parade– Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai, by Michael Dylan Foster.)